Just 3 days now til the Eagles' glorious return to the NFC Championship, and to be honest, I've seen a few too many "experts" predicting a Cardinals victory. It's not that I'm overly confident that this is an easy-win, but if I had any inkling a few weeks ago that the Eagles would not only be playing for a slot in the Super Bowl, but that it'd be against.... the Arizona Cardinals!... I'd be feeling pretty good. So while I don't want to take this game lightly, as I'm sure the team isn't, I know that it's one these guys are more than capable of winning, and winning soundly. Anything can happen of course, but I just can't quite figure out why so many people seem to be laying their money on the red-birds.
No matter. The Eagles have now played 1 playoff game as the favorite and 1 as the underdog, so they can handle it either way. It looks like Anquan Boldin will be playing on Sunday, though I suspect that he won't be close to 100%. Nevertheless, like Westbrook for the Eagles, if he's out on the field he'll command some attention. Without Boldin, Jim Johnson would certainly put double coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, especially after watching the gashing he put on the Carolina secondary last week. However, even with a banged-up Boldin out there, I think it's still worth putting an extra man on Fitzgerald. A WR with a bad hammy is just not going to be running his routes and dodging defenders as effectively, and the Birds' D-backs are very good from top to bottom, so I trust that Boldin will not be free to rip them for any huge plays. Interesting note: the last WR to score a TD against the Eagles was Fitzgerald back in week 13.
Here are some keys to watch for, that I think will be crucial in determining the outcome of this game:
- Minimize offensive mistakes: I think this goes without saying every week, but as long as the Eagles can keep the TOs to under 2, they should win this game. 2-even? Maybe still OK, but let's not take any chances. The offense should be able to have their best game of the playoffs against a better-but-still-mediocre Cardinal D, and so as long as they don't make any (many?) huge mistakes they shouldn't have a problem scoring the points necessary to trump Arizona- which may need to be 20 or more, as this Cardinals O is going to find the end zone at least twice themselves. The Eagles offense has been slow to get going the past 2 weeks, but unlike in the regular season, McNabb has been able to get past rickety starts to eventually get into a rhythm. That last drive in the 1st half of the Giants game, and the 3rd and 20 drive in the 2nd half, and the 2nd TD drive, were sheer beauties, vintage McNabb style. Not to take away from the Cards' improved defensive play last week, but Delhomme literally threw as many balls to Cardinals players as he did to his top receiver in that game, so I can really only credit so much of that to the D. Anyway, point being: McNabb needs to take care of the ball and keep errant throws at a minimum... no need to give their defense any help, or give Warner and co. a head start down the field.
- Pressure Warner: This is obviously on the list of musts of any semi-competent analyst, writer, blogger or fan, but it still needs to be reiterated. Kurt Warner with lots of time in the pocket is lethal. Kurt Warner with persistant pressure on him is a turnover timebomb; the guy is about as mobile as a quadriplegic, so if he's got someone chasing him, he's goin' down and he's goin down fast, often squirting the ball loose in the process. Even if he protects the football, his accuracy plummets significantly when he has to hurry his throws. If there is any anecdote to the force that is the Cardinals passing game, this is it. But, easier said than done of course. The Birds have a good pass rush, but it has been pretty dormant in the sack department so far in the playoffs. However, even though they were never actually credited with a sack in the Giants game, there was heavy pressure on Eli before both of his picks. This is what they need to do again, against an o-line that isn't as big or strong as the Giants' was. I smell at least 1 Asante Samuel INT.
- Red Zone efficiency: As their Achilles heel the last 2 seasons, the Eagles seem to hit a brick wall when they get to the 20. FGs were OK against the Giants because that was more of a defensive battle, but it's going to take TDs to beat the Cardinals. This was not a problem last meeting between the two when the Green-Birds scored 6 of 'em; they (hopefully!) won't need that many in this game, but I think at least 3 trips into the endzone will help ensure victory. If they get inside the 20 (which they need to, often) and especially if DeSean Jackson giftwraps them a trip or 2 there on a return, they've gotta capitalize. I don't want to see Akers until the extra point.
These keys are no short order, but they're things that this team is clearly capable of doing. For the first time in the playoffs, I'm no longer really that concerned about the run-pass ratio- whatever works on Sunday is fine with me. Injured or not, I think B-West has a big day and I think Andy & Marty find success with the screen pass again. The offense needs to get rolling more quickly than the last 2 games - once they do they're unstoppable, but they'll need to put up more against the best offense they've seen in the postseason - so early and often please, boys.
All week we've been blitzed with stats and records and facts and numbers, reasons why teams in Philly's situation can and can't win: the Cardinals are the lowest seed to ever host a conference championship, the Eagles were 4-5-1 on the road this regular season, teams that knock off the reigning Super Bowl champs are 0-11 the following week... aside from wondering who really has time to figure this crap out, I just don't care about any of that. At the end of the day, the Eagles have just beaten 2 teams on the road and they can do it again, period.
Wish I could be in Glendale on Sunday, but I suspect that the Eagles will make me proud again. I'm trying to block the first 3 McNabb era NFC championships out of my head- McNabb has matured since then, and I believe he's become calmer, wiser, more introspective... no longer feeling the need to carry the fate of the entire team on his shoulders. Fine like wine, baby.